Big Cypress National Preserve Enters New Decade Endangered

An oil pad and road in the Big Cypress National Preserve
Credit: Photo credit: Jonathan Milne,

It’s hard to believe that we kicked off a new decade with unrestored damage caused by the Burnett Oil Company’s seismic testing in the Florida Everglades’ Big Cypress National Preserve, which began three years ago. Especially since the National Parks Traveler recently named Big Cypress as “the National Park System’s poster child for what constitutes an endangered park” due to energy development and invasive species.

Big Cypress plays too important of a role in the Greater Everglades ecosystem to jeopardize it for oil. It provides around 40 percent of fresh water to Everglades National Park and is home to many species of wildlife and plants, such as endangered Florida panthers and ancient dwarf cypress trees. Our national park units should be utilized as part of the climate change solution—such as for carbon capture and storage—not destroyed to extract climate-damaging fossil fuels.

While there is legacy oil development already taking place in two discrete oil fields in Big Cypress, the Burnett Oil Company began its hunt for oil in a new 110 square mile area of the preserve. This is only the first of four planned phases of exploration, which, if approved, would ultimately encompass one-third of the preserve. Do we really want to industrialize America’s first national preserve?

As we previously reported, NRDC and its allies hired Florida-based scientific experts to monitor the damage caused by the oil exploration from the driving of “vibroseis” vehicles weighing as much as 33 tons, off-road through wetland ecosystems. Video footage taken from these damaging trucks can be viewed here. Nonetheless, the National Park Service and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection believe that the oil company’s attempts to fix the damage are almost complete. Science does not support this position.

First, state and federal agencies are not requiring full restoration of the damage. They are only requiring “reclamation”—which consists of pushing the sidecast soil back in the seismic lines created by the vibroseis vehicles. These lines are up to 15-feet wide and 2-feet deep in places. But the oil company is not required to fully restore damaged soils or replant any vegetation—including dwarf cypress trees—which were cut, run over, or wounded to make way for the oil hunt.

Seismic line and cut cypress trees in Big Cypress National Preserve

Second, based on our observations made in the preserve and Burnett Oil’s initial monitoring report, it appears that it is not complying with state and federal permit requirements that require it to return seismic survey areas to conditions consistent with presurvey conditions. Instead, the oil company is re-grading soils within 3 inches of adjacent undisturbed areas in places. Meaning, the preserve is not the same as it was prior to the seismic testing, despite the oil company’s claims that there would be no long-term impacts.

Third, a new report prepared by our scientific experts concludes that the oil company is not monitoring the damage it caused in an unbiased or statistically valid way. The report can be found here.

Specifically, the oil company makes representations in its initial monitoring report that our scientific experts disagree with, such as: the seismic lines have been successfully reclaimed; cypress trees removed had minimal impact on vegetation canopy coverage as a whole; nuisance and exotic plant populations are minimal; and groundcover vegetation is expected to rebound over time.

Our experts conclude that this overly optimistic monitoring report is due to the extremely low bar set by poorly‐defined reclamation goals and the failure of state and federal agencies to establish more meaningful success criteria and robust monitoring methods.

It is important that state and federal agencies require Burnett Oil to get the monitoring right from the start. Otherwise, subsequent years of monitoring will not be effective in identifying problems with the oil company’s reclamation attempts so they can be promptly corrected. Specific concerns that our experts have with representations made in the oil company’s initial monitoring report include:

  • The number of monitoring stations within each designated reclamation area is not proportional to the length of the impacts caused by the oil exploration;
  • The number and size of disturbed vegetation monitoring plots are insufficient to yield statistically significant results and do not include the full width of the seismic lines the oil company created;
  • It’s unclear whether state and federal agencies will base the “success of the reclamation” on individual reclamation areas or the 110-square mile Phase I seismic survey area in its entirety;
  • The center of the seismic line is the least disturbed area because it was located between the vibroseis vehicle tires, yet the disturbed vegetation monitoring is taking place there;
  • The method for comparing the topographic elevations of adjacent undisturbed areas to reclaimed areas is “biased and inconsistent” with the oil company’s permits;
  • Fundamental plant community attributes—such as species richness and diversity—between impacted and adjacent, undisturbed areas are not being disclosed; and
  • Plant species are misidentified.

In short, despite the oil company’s claims to the contrary, our scientific experts concluded that long‐term soil, hydrologic, and vegetation damage will persist as a result of Burnett Oil Company’s seismic survey activities and unsuccessful reclamation attempts to date.

We will not be deterred by the oil company’s misleading initial monitoring report—NRDC will continue to insist on science-based restoration and monitoring of the damage caused by seismic testing in the Big Cypress National Preserve. And we will continue to oppose any efforts to resume additional damaging oil exploration or development in this endangered national park unit—in 2020 and beyond.